For the first time in history, vaccines are reaching children in developing countries at nearly the same time they reach children in high-income countries.
As we observe the third ever World Pneumonia Day this year on November 12, and the power of immunisation in general, it is gratifying to know that the pneumococcal vaccine is already starting to reach the children who need it most.
Pneumonia kills a child every 20 seconds. It is the single largest cause of death for children under five. The pneumococcal vaccine does more than prevent pneumonia, because pneumococcal disease also causes pneumococcal meningitis. This nasty condition leaves roughly one quarter of African children who survive it with lifelong disabilities including deafness, seizures, mental retardation, and motor impairment.
But commitments by governments as well as innovative work by the GAVI Alliance means we now have new vaccines against pneumococcal disease, a major cause of pneumonia, which could save 7 million children’s lives by 2030. GAVI’s work helped accelerate the production of vaccines that otherwise would have taken between 10 and 15 years to be available for children in developing countries.
Rwanda started the trend a few years back, but in the past year alone, the vaccine has reached 15 countries from Nicaragua to Yemen. In Sierra Leonean villages, mothers were queuing to immunise their children just one year after children in the United States received the vaccine.
Vaccines reaching children in the developing world at nearly the same time as the developed world is especially important when one considers that 98.5 percent of pneumonia deaths occur in developing countries, where medical care may be hard to reach. By preventing disease in the first place, immunisation removes the need for hospitalisation or medical treatment.
Despite GAVI’s ambitious plan to ensure that all children have access to life-saving vaccines, plenty remains to be done. Millions of children still lack the vaccine.
Immunisation against other diseases such as Hib (Haemophilus influenzae type B), measles, and whooping cough, also help to reduce pneumonia deaths. Immunisation is not the only way to prevent pneumonia, however. Breast-feeding, improved nutrition, the reduction of indoor air pollution and antibiotics are equally important.
Humanity is best measured by the manner in which it takes care of its weakest and most vulnerable. None are more so than the children born in resource challenged countries of the world.
The nexus between medicine, technology, and smart management is slowly but surely allowing more children to survive and thrive. By 2015, GAVI expects that 58 countries will have introduced this vaccine into their routine immunization systems and immunized another 90 million children.
By harnessing the power of governments, industry, philanthropy, activism, and commitment, we can do more. Innovative financing mechanisms, like GAVI's Advance Market Commitment, help shape the market for the vaccine and make it possible for it to be available at prices developing countries can afford.
By helping to protect these children, GAVI partners and donors are supporting a major contribution to Millennium Development Goal 4, a two thirds reduction of child mortality between 1990 and 2015.
Reducing death from childhood diseases we can prevent is critical. It is a reflection of our humanity.
Immunisation is also arguably the best health intervention available.